National / Politics | DECISION 2016

Showdown in apathetic Fukushima finds justice minister scrambling for survival

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Justice Minister Mitsuhide Iwaki is feeling threatened.

With his electoral district in Fukushima Prefecture reduced to one seat from two for Sunday’s Upper House election, he needs to beat Democratic Party rival Teruhiko Mashiko, something he failed to pull off the last time around.

If the Cabinet minister loses, it will end his career and deal a humiliating blow to the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. And with Mashiko enjoying joint backing from opposition parties including the DP, the Fukushima race represents a showdown between the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling bloc and the opposition.

Addressing supporters last Sunday, Mashiko couldn’t have described the dynamics more succinctly.

“My opponent is no longer the justice minister. It’s Prime Minister Abe,” he said. “He’s really desperate. He’s been doing everything he can to unseat me. What an honor.”

Abe, for his part, has bent over backward to help Iwaki, joining him on the campaign trail right after the Diet closed for the summer on June 1 and sending a string of big-name politicians to Fukushima to campaign for him.

Failed strategy

Abe is said to have appointed the third-term Upper House lawmaker as justice minister in October to ensure re-election. He apparently felt he couldn’t afford to lose LDP influence in the sensitive constituency that was heavily damaged by three reactor meltdowns in March 2011.

But past election results show that Iwaki is facing an uphill battle on Sunday — the first since Fukushima became a single-seat constituency in 2013.

Not once in the past three Upper House elections has Iwaki defeated his main challenger, always finishing second. The last time he and Mashiko competed was in 2010, when Fukushima was a two-seat constituency. Mashiko won by 3,000 votes.

To make things worse, Iwaki’s appointment as justice minister appears to have backfired.

Earlier this year in the Diet, he was repeatedly driven into a corner as opposition lawmakers blitzed him with highly technical legal questions. His struggle to respond was televised nationwide. He majored in law at Sophia University.

“We all share the understanding that Iwaki, as a member of the current administration, cannot lose. If he does, the damage to the Abe administration will be immense,” his secretary, Izuru Onodera, said.

Lingering nuclear woes

While the election is being played as a vote on Abenomics, the two candidates in Fukushima are localizing the agenda.

In recent campaign trips in the prefecture, most of their speeches have focused on how they would steer Fukushima’s recovery. Five years into the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, about 100,000 residents still remain displaced within and outside the prefecture.

While Iwaki trumpets the LDP’s decisiveness and legislative advantage, Mashiko is vowing to decommission all 10 reactors in the prefecture.

Standing before a crowd of supporters in Koriyama on Monday, Iwaki stressed that the LDP is the party that can steer Fukushima toward recovery and accused the DP of engaging in an “irresponsible tie-up” with the radical Japanese Communist Party.

“We cannot entrust the future of Fukushima to a mishmash opposition coalition fraught with ideological differences,” Iwaki said. “As a Cabinet member, I have the responsibility to facilitate government efforts to reconstruct Fukushima.”

Mashiko, meanwhile, reaffirmed his pledge to decommission the 10 reactors and denounced Iwaki’s ambiguous stance on the matter. Although the LDP’s Fukushima chapter has vowed to dismantle the reactors, Iwaki is apparently refusing to back that pledge publicly to avoid contradicting Abe’s pro-nuclear central government.

During campaigning activities Monday, Iwaki told The Japan Times that he will “respect” the Fukushima chapter’s stance on the reactors, before speeding off in a van.

Voter apathy

Neither candidate appears to have made much of an impression with voters.

Fukushima resident Yuriko, 54, who only wished to be identified by her first name, said she will vote but might cast a blank ballot in protest.

“I feel it will make no difference no matter who wins,” the company employee said when approached on a street in Koriyama. She said she doesn’t even know who is running.

A 25-year-old man who also requested anonymity said he only cares about one topic — employment. Even the issue of Fukushima’s recovery hardly struck a nerve.

“Everyone was affected by the disaster to a different degree and I wasn’t much of a victim. As a Fukushima resident, I’m mildly curious about how the reconstruction effort proceeds, but that topic doesn’t motivate me into any sort of action,” he said.

Expectations are even dimmer among those whose lives were upended by the calamity.

On a recent visit to a remote temporary housing unit in Nihonmatsu, evacuees from the town of Namie near the crippled Fukushima No. 1 power plant were downright apathetic about the election.

They are too preoccupied with their uncertain future, not to mention the daily inconveniences of the evacuation, to even think about the poll, they said. Not a single supermarket or hospital exists near the housing unit, forcing them to drive long distances to complete even the smallest part of their daily routine.

Nobuhiro Fujita, 68, a former farmer and carpenter, said he wasn’t interested in Sunday’s election.

“All I can think about is my own life. I don’t know what is going to happen to my house in Namie. I don’t have time to wonder about the election,” he said.

Although he wants to go home, Fujita, who suffers from numbness in his leg, said he is stuck in limbo.

“I do want to return to Namie, but even if I do, my rice field has been left unattended for too long and is now ruined. With my bad leg, I can’t do any carpentry work, either.”

A 48-year-old company employee and father who asked to be identified only by his surname of Yoshida, also took a dim view of the historic race.

“After being left like this for five years and counting, I can’t really trust the candidates to put their words into action, no matter what they say they will do for us,” he said.

“I’m resigned.”

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